GPS Smartphone Tour of Local Canyon — Design Case

[This article summarizes a recent publication for the International Journal of Designs for Learning]


Once a semester, college students in an introductory science course have the option of attending a field trip to learn more about local geology. The goal of this project was to provide an alternative means of participating in the field trip that is scalable, accessible, and fun.

My Role: Everything (almost). I proposed this project and was awarded a grant for its completion. I coordinated with content experts, and was ultimately responsible for designing, testing and developing the tour.

Design Process

Although I present this process in linear format, in practice regularly jump back and forth between stages as I iterate through a project.


Target Audience: Students enrolled in Physical Science 100.

  • Roughly 4000 students a year
  • Majority are college freshmen or sophomores
  • Wide range of interest in subject matter
  • Varied physical capabilities

Stakeholders: Present and future course professors, assistants and students. Myself (the designer).

Content: I assembled content for the tour from course materials, learning outcomes, and other related resources.

Photos: Sample of materials from which content was gathered.

Constraints: Limited funding. 6 month timeline. Reduced cell phone service. 1–1.5 hour time constraint for the length of the assignment.

Setting: Outdoors. Tall canyon walls. Seasonal river. Hot summer. Snowy winter. Unpaved trails.

Image: View of Rock Canyon on Google Earth.


I had to consider creative solutions to overcome a variety of challenges associated with creating a GPS tour.

Multimedia and Text: I utilized the images, videos and text of several previously created materials for this course. I wrote content myself where no previous resources existed. All content was reviewed by subject matter experts.

Animation courtesy of the BYU Rock Canyon Virtual Field Trip

Limited Cellphone Coverage: All necessary files were downloaded to the device prior to reaching the canyon. Content is triggered by the device’s GPS coordinates, which are available regardless of data service.

Terrain: Specific locations along the route were removed as they required leaving reliable trails or were a significant distance from other points of interest.

Weather: Only locations that are accessible in snowy weather were selected. A seasonal river also altered the most efficient route depending on the time of year. For this reason, instead of forcing students to follow a specific path, they are allowed to visit the locations in any order.

Photos: Summer and Winter at at Rock Canyon

Accessibility: I included a feature that would enable students who could not complete the hike to tap through the locations instead of actually hiking along the trail.

Selecting Points of Interest: I relied on subject matter experts and to identify points of interest that aligned with course objectives and learning outcomes.

Prototype / Test

Prototyping: I used Google MyMaps to create and test prototypes of the tour and route design.

Image: A prototype built with Google MyMaps.

Programming: I chose MIT’s TaleBlazer to develop the tour for multiple reasons:

  • Portability: Allows for all tour content to be downloaded to the student’s device.
  • iOS/Android Support
  • Future Maintenance: A simple graphical user interface (GUI) and block based coding system would make future maintenance of the tour much easier than if this project were coded from scratch.
Screenshots: MIT TaleBlazer’s easy-to-use graphical user interface.

Testing-Debugging: I tested several versions of the tour on both iOS and Android devices. Multiple iterations led to a reliably smooth experience on either platform.

Photography: It was difficult to understand what geologic features the tour was referring to based solely on text. I took photographs at each location to provide students with additional context at each point of interest.

Photos: Locations students visit along the tour.


Introduction: The course professor introduces the assignment in class and sends a follow-up email.

Job Aid: Students are provided a digital job aid explaining how to download and access the tour.

Photo: Digital job-aid explaining how to download and access the tour.

Student Reporting: Upon completing the tour, students are provided a link to a survey to report their experience once they return to a reliable data connection.


Average Time Spent Per Student: 42 minutes

Tour Downloads: 250+

Qualitative Feedback

What was your favorite part of the experience?

  • “Was able to understand all the different rock formations in person.”
  • “The beautiful hike.”
  • “Being outside and enjoying…”

How did the guided smartphone tour affect your hiking experience?

  • “Enhanced it”
  • “It really helped where I needed to go.”
  • “Positive”

Did you feel that you took more, less, or the same amount of time completing the tour as you would have had you not utilized Tale Blazer?

  • “Less time for sure as it was convenient and right on key.”
  • “Same.”


Creating a GPS smartphone tour taught me several important lessons in experience design:

  • The learner’s experience always extends beyond the screen.
  • Repeated cycles of prototyping and testing lead to key insights.
  • Plan how much time you will take to debug….and double it.

Thank you — Let me know if I can help!

Thank you for reading. Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions. Reach out to me in the comments below or on Twitter at @Kyle_Clements1. If you are working on a related project, let me know if I can help!